Why art matters
Julian Burnside AO QC
To support new and emerging artists
Julian was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2009 for service to the arts, the law and for his role as a human rights advocate. The latter mentioned contributions are oft recognised in the public sphere yet he remains modest about his service to the arts, even laughing at the idea that we would want to speak to a Barrister about such a topic when we arrive for our interview. As we talk, it is evident that this modesty stems from a deep respect for artists and what they create, and also an understanding that even though his own craft is language, he is not able to use this tool when appraising art as it eludes the need for the definition and structure so pervasive in law.
That said, Julian’s contribution to the arts is significant and it is difficult to detail it with justice here. Currently chair, foundation supporter and patron of fortyfivedownstairs, a creative hub with a curated programme in the centre of Melbourne he also frequently commissions works of music, fervently collects contemporary art and at times, turns his own hands to sculpture.
We caught up with Julian to discuss the ideas behind his involvement in the arts.
I am curious as to how the arts fit into your worldview. Could you tell me, in general, any thoughts that you may have about the importance of supporting the arts?
(Laughs) I have many.
We need law, without it you can’t have society. But without the arts you can’t have civilisation. The human impulse for art is profound and irrepressible. It is another expression of our need to communicate. It is difficult to explain, but the human instinct to create and to record and to communicate suggests that art really matters.
Here is a simple experiment. Take a room full of people of average intelligence and education, and give them a list of names from the past few centuries and give them names of artists - writers, poets, composers – as well as accountants, engineers and so on. Everyone recognises the name of Dickens and da Vinci and Tchaikovsky, sometimes without being able to tell you much about them except what they did. These same people will probably not recognise the names of any doctors or lawyers or architects at that time. Indeed, people with no background in classical music at all can respond emotionally to the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.
Can you define the arts and what it is to support them?
I wouldn’t define the arts. Attending shows, buying paintings and sculptures or even commissioning music is a way to support the arts. A way not to support art is by buying a painting at an auction house: a piece that is second hand and the painter is dead. I like to commission works of music, because writing music is a hard way to make a living.
Does supporting the arts, in a financial sense, bring any ownership over the works produced?
Yes and No. When I commission music, I like to get a signed copy of the score but I don’t own the piece. When I buy a painting or a piece of sculpture, I feel like I own it, but in one sense I am just looking after it.
If the public felt an affinity with or ownership over a painting that you had purchased, would it be justifiable to remove that piece from the public eye?
Technically, you own the specific thing, it belongs to you, but the painting also belongs to the public and the copyright belongs to the artist. You can remove it from the public eye, by keeping it at home. But you can’t destroy it.
Did you ever aspire to become an artist?
(Laughs) I fancied myself as possibly becoming an artist. I wanted to be an artist.
For a long time I wanted to become a photographer or a painter. I enjoy painting, photography and sculpture, but that doesn’t make me an artist.
When I make a sculpture it is a physical process. It is a different part of the brain from what I would use in, say, a cross-examination, but also a different manifestation of the human capacity for language. For example, a Shostakovich string quartet conveys something that can’t be put into words. The further away something is from being expressed into language, the closer it is to becoming art. See that painting, (Points to an abstract expressionist painting by Robert Hirschman on the wall behind us), when the exhibition of Hirschman’s work was being opened, someone asked him if he could explain what the painting meant. He said, “No, but I can hum it to you”. Frank Zappa once said that talking about art was like dancing about architecture.
If you can’t use language to describe art, in your perspective, is it then possible to say whether art is good or bad?
Yes you can say that. Plenty is good and plenty is bad.
Well, what do you perceive as good art?
I don’t know. I don’t think I can answer that. One aspect is this: if the idea communicated by a painting could equally have been communicated in words, then it is probably not good art. If something is obvious or trivial, then it is probably not good art; it is chocolate box art. There is a quote, from Saki (HH Munro, “The Reticence of Lady Anne”) who said:
"In matters artistic they had a similarity of taste. They leaned toward the honest and explicit in art, a picture, for instance, that told its own story, with generous assistance from its title. A riderless warhorse with harness in obvious disarray, staggering into a courtyard full of pale swooning women, and marginally noted 'Bad News,' suggested to their minds a distinct interpretation of some military catastrophe. They could see what it was meant to convey, and explain it to friends of duller intelligence."
Where do you keep the majority of your collection (of paintings)?
Here (his Chambers), at home, I have lent 50 or 60 works to various sets of chambers and I lend them to friends. I much prefer to have them on someone’s wall than hidden away in a cupboard.